Notes from Zen

Zen: Beginner’s mind

It was by sheer accident that I came across the name Shunryu Suzuki and his epic book “Zen Mind, Beginner’s mind”. Before that I only had a marginal knowledge of zen and the ensemble of wisdom piloted by philosophy from the east.

I wouldn’t dare to provide an exhaustive definition of Zen here but simply put Zen is the the art of living wisely by forming a genuine connection with the flow of life. Being engaged to your activities of each moment. When you cook you cook, when you sit to meditate you sit to meditate, when you attend a lecture you attend a lecture etc… By being constantly present and by letting our mind pervade our body when doing things, we express our true nature. The following is an excerpt from the book.

…to cook is not just to prepare food for some one or for yourself; it is to express your sincerity. So when you cook you should express yourself in your activity in the kitchen. You should allow yourself plenty of time; you should work on it with nothing in your mind, and without expecting anything. You should just cook! That is also an expression of our sincerity, a part of our practice… “.

The other most interesting thing about Zen is the inherent pragmatism embedded in it. The teaching of Zen isn’t so much concerned about the metaphysical aspects of all natural things, nor does it crave to take a dip in the uncertain realm of speculations about the primary causation for the existence of humans, the universe and the world as we know it in general.

…Buddha was not interested in the elements comprising human beings, nor in metaphysical theories of existence. He was more concerned about how he himself existed in this moment. That was his point. Bread is made from flour. How flour becomes bread when put in the oven was for Buddha the most important thing. How we become enlightened was his main interest…”

The title, “Beginner’s mind”, by itself unlocks a fundamental zen wisdom. Beginner’s mind is the state of your mind when you start doing something for the first time. It can be starting to play an instrument, learning a language, starting a job or school, a little child starting to learn alphabets or basic algebra etc… There might be some frustration if you demand an immediate mastery of the skills but the state of the beginner’s mind is usually marked by utter excitement and not wanting to stop to learn. But what happens after more recitals and a few months/years down the line ? The original attitude towards what ever you were learning usually gets eroded if not gone completely.

Don’t most of us also suffer from this in our relationships with our loved ones? Be it with girl/boy friends, wives/husbands, friends, co-workers, neighbors etc… relationships don’t usually continue with the same enthusiasm they were started with. It’s not uncommon for the excitement to start to fade away after we get to know each other a little bit better.

There is no doubt about repetition being the path to mastery and ascending confidence in doing something but when this is done mindlessly it leads to the state referred to as  “The expert mind”. This state is different from the “ready for anything mind” and on the contrary it’s more accustomed to doing things in a certain way. Therefore along with our quest to achieving mastery in anything or pursuance of relationship of any sort, we shouldn’t forget about maintaining our “beginner’s mind”.

“In the beginner’s mind there is no thought, ‘I have attained something.’ All self-centered thoughts limit our vast mind. When we have no thought of achievement, no thought of self, we are true beginners. Then we can really learn something”.

Perhaps one of the pillars of Zen teaching is the teaching of the “the single minded way”. Being unable to muster our mind into the whatever we are doing is a very common phenomena and a transient attention span is a thing of concern for many. This could be caused by something external such as distractions which can’t be ignored by our sense organs (like the loud music that was blasting off of the headset of the guy sitting next to me while I was writing this :-))  or internal causes such as having preconceptions, doubts, fear about an activity before undertaking any of it.

“…When we do something with a quite simple, clear mind, we have no notion or shadows, and our activity is strong and straightforward. But when we do something with a complicated mind, in relation to other things or people, or society, our activity becomes very complex… “
While the external set of distractions can be avoided by taking simple measures such as sitting somewhere quite, the internal ones can be circumvented by clearing ones mind and immersing oneself fully into an activity that he/she is doing.
“…In order not to leave any traces, when you do something, you should do it with your whole body and mind; you should be concentrated on what you do. You should do it completely, like a good bonfire. You should not be a smoky fire. You should burn yourself completely…”
For Suzuki the frog is the epitome of mastery of Zen practice. The frog sits undisturbed for hours without attaching importance to its sitting. “If something comes along to eat, he will snap it up and eat, and he eats sitting. Actually that is our zazen not any special thing”.
If the fundamentals of the Zen teaching were to be boiled down into a few key points one of them would definitely be the sincere expression of our true nature. When the mind and the body are fully coordinated and engaged in doing something there is no doubt that through the trace of each action we can also trace our authentic nature.

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